A man was looking around near a light pole when an officer came up to him. “Are you looking for something?” the officer asked. The man told him he lost his keys. The officer responded with another question, “Where did you lose them?” The man pointed towards a dark alleyway. “Then why are you searching here in the light?” The officer asked, “you must search where you lost them!”
In the Hebrew month of Elul, the Alter Rebbe, Shneur Zalman of Liadi, has a famous maamar (discourse), Ani Ledodi V’dodi Li (I am to my Beloved and My Beloved is to me), where he discusses man’s relationship with G-d during that month. The month of Elul is an auspicious time for spiritual stocktaking of the previous year in order to make positive resolutions for the month of Tishrei, which includes the holidays of Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Simchas Torah. Throughout the year there is the possibility that a person can lose, G-d forbid, sensitivity of connection with G-d. Similar to the parable above, the Alter Rebbe says that a person must “uvikashtem misham,” he must search from there, the place he lost it. In other words, a person must search in the place where he lost sensitivity to the Divine, as will be explained.
When a person considers where he is and his relationship with the Divine, it’s important to reflect on the following questions: Where am I placing my attention? What may I be reacting to? What am I searching for? Where am I searching? It's also important to observe the thoughts and feelings that are present towards different people, places, and things in one’s life. In observing the previous year, a person may notice that something happened that he reacted to and allowed that situation to affect his behavior. Whether it was a relationship with another person, sudden news, an accident, G-d forbid, or anything similar, all can disorient a person’s perspectives and lead to moods and attitudes of sadness, regret, and worry. The problem is not the reaction to these situations, but how long the reaction to them is. Allowing a situation to deter and knock a person out of alignment is an expression that doesn’t acknowledge Who’s behind it, Who’s running the show.
The appropriate response, the Alter Rebbe shares, is to return to those memories of the past year, and, if necessary, even further back, and “search” for G-d in them. The search includes looking into the thought, speech, and deed of the previous year.
Types of Searching
In a sicha (talk) from the Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson addresses the type of searching (stocktaking) necessary in Elul. The way in which one searches and how much he searches is very important to be aware of. Similar to a business person who must take stock of the business, he must take time to take inventory, make an accounting, and more. However, if he does this too much it will take away from actually running the business. So too a person must set aside times to reflect, but there is a possibility of hyper-focusing on oneself which will take away from living.
Furthermore, as in the parable mentioned above, even if a person is searching in the right place, so to speak, if his focus is from a place of stress and anxiety, he won’t find what he’s looking for. In regard to this, the Rebbeim write that the search must be from a place of rachamim (compassion).
Convergent and Divergent Focus
There are two types of focuses: a convergent focus and a divergent focus. A convergent focus narrows in on one thing or one task. For example, when a person experiences a threat, his attention will go to the thing that caused a change in his inner environment of thoughts and feelings. Or, when an animal notices a predator, it’s attention converges onto the predator, and it uses all of it’s energy in order to survive. A divergent focus, by contrast, is open and rested. It is the act of broadening one’s attention. Once the animal gets to safety, it returns to a parasympathetic state of being and it’s attention relaxes and opens. Due to the size of the prefrontal cortex, a human has the ability to think about his problems. Although an animal can let go of the fact it was under threat, a person can continue to stimulate the thoughts and feelings of being under threat even after he has gotten to safety.
As a person internalizes the teachings of the Rebbeim and meditates on memories of the previous year, it’s important that he do so with a divergent focus. He must arouse rachamim and have love for his soul. And trust with joy that he is realigning with the Creator. It can be beneficial to have bitterness, meaning to want a greater awareness of one’s connection, but sadness and stress won’t assist in attaining the lost object. Although there may be a lot to “work” on, to improve at, and refine, there’s no benefit in having frustration or looking down on oneself. This type of behavior is only self-sabotaging and leads to further develop bad habits.
Is Moshiach here yet?
How are these ideas related to the Moshiach (Messiah) and the Messianic times?
In Gemara Sanhedrin 97a, the Sages say that “Moshiach will come B’hesech hadaas” (lit. when we aren’t expecting him).
In addition to the concepts discussed above, the Rebbe emphasizes that we should “live with the Redemption.” Furthermore, he said that Moshiach is here, we must only “open your eyes and see.” Then, it’s possible to say we just lost, or misplaced, Moshiach, and we simply must find him. And there is clear instruction how to do it in our personal life and collectively, in a micro and macro level: the Alter Rebbe says that a person must “uvikashtem misham.”
The Sages teaching B’hesech hadaas means Moshiach will come when our attention is diverted. We are empowered to practice the teachings of our Rebbe, to live with Moshiach, meaning to act as if he’s here now. If a person were to constantly look and ask “where is Moshiach?” then he is separate from living with Moshiach because if he were truly living with Moshiach he wouldn’t have that question!
Bringing it all together
In theTanya, Chapter 36, the Alter Rebbe shares that ultimate purpose of the world is Moshiach. In the Messianic times, everything will be used for purpose it was created and everyone will be doing the purpose for which it was created. That is what the world is “looking for,” i.e what it is working towards and being refined into. However, the fact that we know it is what we’re “looking” for means it was in our ownership and we simply need to find it. Moshiach becomes the intention. The difference is that instead of looking for lost "keys" externally, this search is really inside of us, it’s something the world is returning to. And the "looking" involves "living" as if it's here now. This latter difference can show up as the difference between judgement and curiosity. A person who's "looking" from a place of lack will ask "what am I doing wrong?" while a person "living" i.e finding will ask "where can I improve?"
In the search, the intention itself is the convergent focus. There are moments, such as in meditation and prayer, in which people pray for their intentions to manifest. In fact, during the Amidah prayer there are multiple requests for Moshiach. An essential component of meditation and prayer is to arouse the emotions that accompany the intention desired. Living with Moshiach is to have a clear intention on what it means intellectually to "live with Moshiach", as the Rebbe taught learning about Moshiach is the quickest way in bringing Moshiach, and to arouse the emotions of Moshiach, such as gratitude, joy, love, and awe. Once these components are set, and formal meditation and prayer have concluded, a person’s attention broadens into a divergent focus because he’s now living as if his intention, Moshiach, is here now. He’s present and calmly living each moment guided by his intuition and his body because, through his meditation and prayer, he programmed his body to the future, to feel as if the future is here now. Whereas in the past the body had urges to different unhealthy desires or distractions, it will become a guide to the future.
There’s a story of a chassidic Rebbe who’s students came and asked him if the Moshiach was here. In response, he got up from his chair, looked out the window, and shared that Moshiach was not there. A question is asked why the chassidic Rebbe had to get up from his chair and look out the window in order to answer his students? The answer being that in his room he was living with Moshiach. Personally, the Rebbe was living with Moshiach, but the world at large was not.
The task for each of person is to reveal the spark of Moshiach within himself. This requires doing the search in the dark places, the things we’ve been unconsciously running away from, in one’s life. It’s uncomfortable and unpleasant, but sitting in the discomfort, without resistance to it, allows a person to fully experience the emotion and move through it.
Within the darkness is exactly what you and what we are looking for.
Then collectively Moshiach will arrive. May it be speedily with the Third Beis Hamikdash.
This that the world is constantly arriving into is here, right now, in the present moment. The process of manifesting an intention is to realize that the intention is not something outside of you and that it is really here. When the intention is embodied in the present moment and the person lives from that elevated state of being, then anything that occurs is part of the process. When difficulty and challenge arises, it’s part of the process of manifestation. A challenge or failure doesn’t necessarily mean the intention is not going to happen. In the words of the Rebbe (Chayenu: Matos-Mas’ei, 5782 quoting Toras Menachem 5718 vol.2 p. 40):
When a person finds himself in a challenging situation, and he knows that he will definitely overcome it; furthermore, he knows that every second of this [uwanted] state is really a preparation to be able to transcend, one views every second - not as a second of exile, but as a second of preparation for the redemption.
Consider it like a pregnant woman expected to give birth by nine months. If nine months come by and she hasn’t given birth, no one will say “well, I guess there’s no baby coming.” G-d forbid. Rather, it means the baby can come out any moment.
So too it is with Moshiach.
The question “are we there yet?” or anything similar, as explained above, is unproductive and coming from a place of separation from desired finished intention. Instead, continue doing what the moment demands - an act of kindness, an inhale, learning - and being in tune with the state of being you’re in. Then, in a way better than one can imagine, it manifests.
There is a story of a few chassidim in the hallway in front of Rebbes office in 770 Eastern Parkway. They were discussing the concept that “Moshiach will come B’hesech hadaas.” As soon as they were discussing it, to their surprise, the Rebbe opened up his office door and said “that’s how!”
A Quote to Ponder on
the Alter Rebbe said, “The Moshiach that is coming, is not what people think – and what people think is Moshiach, is not.” (source)
I also heard the above quote paraphrased a little different: Whatever people think Moshiach times will be like, I know it's not.
Let's be open to the surprise.